Digital Ant Swarms
A friend of mine emailed yesterday, admonishing me for not writing about the Digital Ants concept discussed on Dailytech. I think it’s because he wanted me to call B.S. on the story. It seems that some security researchers are trying to mimic the behavior of ants in computer defenses to thwart attackers. From the article:
Security researchers found inspiration in the common ant. Describes Wake Forest University Professor of Computer Science Errin Fulp, “In nature, we know that ants defend against threats very successfully. They can ramp up their defense rapidly, and then resume routine behavior quickly after an intruder has been stopped. We were trying to achieve that same framework in a computer system.”
WFU created digital “ants” – utilities that migrate from computer to computer over networks searching for threats. When one locates a threat, others congregate on it, using so-called “swarm intelligence”. The approach allows human researchers to quickly identify and quarantine dangerous files by watching the activity of the ants.
This seems like nature’s reaction du jour. Many have written about the use of ‘helpful viruses’ and viral technologies (cheese worm (PDF), anti-porn worm, wifi worm, etc.) to combat hostile computer worms and viruses. Helpful virus code finds exploits the same way a harmful virus would, but then patches the defect – curing the system instead of reproducing. But the helpful viruses tend to become an attack vector of themselves, or ‘fix’ things in very unintended ways, compounding the problem.
Ants behave very differently than viruses. Real ants fill a dual role, both gathering food and defending the hive. Besides access controls, few security products can make this claim. Second, ants can detect threats. Software and systems are only marginally effective at this, even with different pieces operating (hopefully) as a coordinated unit. Finally, ants bite. They have the ability to defend themselves individually, as well as work effectively as a group. In either case they post a strong deterrent to attack, something seldom seen in the digital domain.
Conceptually I like the idea of being able to systemically respond to a threat, with different parts of the system reacting to different threats. On the threat detection side this makes sense as well, as many subtle attacks require information gathered from different parts of the system to be able to identify them. SEM/SIEM has slowly been advancing this science for some time now, and it is a core piece of the ADMP concept for web application security, where the detection and prevention is systemic. It is not the idea of a swam that makes it effective, but holistic detection in combination with multiple, different reactions by systems that can provide a meaningful response. So I am not saying ant swarming behavior applied to computer security is B.S., but “ramping up responses” is not the real problem – detection and appropriate reactions are.